“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
A book taking us into one day in the life of a woman is what it says it is but Mrs. Dalloway is anything but simple. It is set at a time post World War 1 in London.
The protagonist is a high society woman, Clarissa Dalloway whose character is based on Virginia’s childhood friend. The book begins with Clarissa preparing for a party she is hosting that evening. She cares a lot about what people think of her and so the success of this party is crucial to her. Clarissa has always been unsure about herself, suppressing her emotions throughout her life.
“She felt that giving parties was the only gift she had, an offering for the sake of offering.”
It was a time when 19th century London was transitioning from the Industrial Revolution into modern times. The conventional society was gradually changing. Being brought up in a patriarchal environment herself, Virginia a distinguished feminist writer brings in a lot of feminist elements in this novel. We find that all the characters are at war within themselves, constantly trying to realise their true self. They are caught between the choices of following their hearts or doing what is typically expected of them by the orthodox society.
“She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on. . . . far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day”
Woolf also illustrates how life changed post World War 1. One of the characters, Septimus Warren Smith who suffers from shell shock is a parallel to the character of Clarissa. He commits suicide but oddly enough, his death does not sadden Clarissa.
“The young man had killed himself; but she did not pity him. She felt somehow very like him. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun…”
Septimus is an example of the paradox that someone has to die in order that the rest of us value life more. The life and death symbolism is highlighted strongly. Life can never be fully understood without understanding death.
“Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.”
The death of Septimus urges Clarissa to somehow put the pieces of her confused mind together and look at life differently. It took a death for her to find certainty in life.
The usage of time in this novel is phenomenal. Less than twenty four hours are over by the time the novel is finished, yet several stories are told through shifts in time! Breaking the traditional ways of writing, Virginia Woolf uses the stream of consciousness technique. Seemingly complex at first, this style takes us inside the minds of every character. This interior monologue is an interesting way to understand the endless flow of thoughts. While reading a stream of consciousness novel we get to know the characters not by direct description, but by travelling in and out of their minds.
Despite the fact that Mrs. Dalloway was written at a time when cognitive psychology was not fully developed, Woolf’s deep sense of knowing, her understanding of the consciousness and the working of the mind is astounding.
In her diary Virginia Woolf writes, “I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticise the social system and to show it at work, at its most intense.”
Through her characters she shows how society lacked in humanity and how people took advantage of each other for personal gain.
“For the truth is . . . that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment.”
“Nothing exists outside us except a state of mind . . . a desire for solace, for relief, for something outside these miserable pigmies, these feeble, these ugly, these craven men and women.”
So she chose Mrs. Dalloway as a channel to put forth her criticism against society.
Since there is no direct narration, lack of punctuation and fragmented sentences in places – the features of the stream of consciousness style of writing, the book might need a little time adjusting to for the new reader. That apart, it is definitely a fine piece of modernist literature that should not be missed.
My rating for this book – 4.5/5